In Brattleboro, Residents At Odds Over What To Do About Panhandlers

Oct 6, 2017

A conversation in Brattleboro about panhandling has led to some tough debates over homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, but there's still no consensus on what to do about people in the street asking for money.

A few months ago some Brattleboro residents asked the selectboard to do something about the number of people panhandling downtown.

People said they felt unsafe, and that they hoped the town could come up with a solution.

Selectboard chairwoman Kate O'Connor says the board is working to come up with some solutions.

"Obviously we don't want it to be happening here because it makes some people uncomfortable," says O'Connor. "So I think as community leaders it's incumbent upon us to listen to what the public's concerns are and do what we can to help."

Landing on an appropriate course of action, however, has been a challenge.

The board considered printing a flyer that would be distributed around town, and even that caused controversy.

Some area social service groups refused to be included because they said the wording was too harsh, and that it stigmatized people who panhandled.

O'Connor says the town is still trying to figure out its role in tackling the problem.

"It's hard to  know, why are they there? You know, do they choose to be there, or are they down on their luck. Is it poverty? So I think it's just a deeper issue than seeing somebody on the street, holding a sign. And so I think that's what people struggle with, is figuring out how do deal with those bigger issues or the underlying issues to some of this," O'Connor says.

"Obviously we don't want it to be happening here because it makes some people uncomfortable. So I think as community leaders it's incumbent upon us to listen to what the public's concerns are and do what we can to help." — Kate O'Connor, Brattleboro Selectboard chairwoman

Dick Degray's family owns a Main Street gift shop and he says the big social issues that might be leading to panhandling need to be addressed.

But he wants the selectboard to do something, now, to make sure people feel safe and comfortable walking the streets of Brattleboro.

"This issue is about safety, and it's about people saying that they don't feel comfortable right now in our town," DeGray says. "And I believe that the issue has been sidetracked to talk about all kinds of different social issues. And whether it's affordability, whether it's  poverty, whether it's drug addiction. And  I think that what happened to this, is that it got pulled in all different directions and to me that's what made it a polarizing issue."

James Douglas says he moved to Brattleboro about six months ago. He's homeless, and he says panhandling, right now, is his only option for getting some cash.

" I'm trying to get myself up on my feet," he says. "Occasionally I come out here and I panhandle so that I can pay the bills that unfortunately our society dictates we must have because this is a capitalist society."

Douglas lives in a tent, and he says he's paying attention to the town wide discussion.
He says all the talk has affected the money he's able to collect on the streets of Brattleboro.

"It seems more and more people are turning sour because the publicity that it's getting is that it's all about drug addicts, and that you're feeding drug addicts and drug addicts are bad," Douglas says. "But it's really not the fact that drug addicts are bad. All of these people are good people, but they have bad things going on in their lives."

 The one thing that everyone agrees on is that, in the United States, panhandling is legal.

Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald, left, and Officer Colby Kerylow, check out a section of Brattleboro that's a known spot for drug use.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald says panhandling is protected by the First Amendment.

He's been actively working with area social service agencies, town officials, and some volunteers to address the problem.

Fitzgerald says there are lines that panhandlers can't cross, and if anyone is hassled or physically threatened, his officers will respond.

But he says those who feel uncomfortable with people in the street asking for money should probably take the long view, and be patient.

"Remember, there's a lot of people working behind the scenes, and in front of the scenes, on addressing this symptom of what is actually at the core," he says. " We have to address what's causing them to panhandle and then we can look at getting them away from having to panhandle."

The town is considering a few options, including starting a jobs program, or maybe installing donation boxes around town for those who do want to give money to help out people who need it.

 The selectboard is expected to continue this discussion at their next meeting.